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Interview: Michael Mann Talks Making 'Thief,' The Importance Of Authenticity & What's Coming In His Next Film

Photo of Kevin Jagernauth By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist February 6, 2014 at 12:01PM

From the opening moments of “Thief”—which features a clockwork heist sequence that would make “Rififi” director Jules Dassin stand up and applaud—it’s clear you’re in the hands of a master storyteller. With some documentary work and TV movie “The Jericho Mile” already under his belt, for his debut feature film, Michael Mann’s command of atmosphere and character arrives fully formed, with “Thief” staking a high bar that the filmmaker would leap from in his films for years to come.
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Thief

The result is the creation of a character that feels authentic, but helping to fully flesh out Frank is the milieu in which he carries on with his life. While Frank has a straight job during the day selling cars, he lives by night, with “Thief” portraying Chicago as a place that comes alive after dark, with excitement and menace lurking in the shadows in equal measure. And for Mann, the neon punctuated evenings are also a reflection of Frank’s interior.

“If you project Frank's mental state—how does he think? how does he feel in the world he occupies? what is that world?—to him, the city isn't this flat place, with streets at right angles to each other, like a grid. To him, in his mental projection, he moves through a place that's almost three dimensional,” Mann elaborates. “It's filled with danger, it's filled with opportunity, he has to avoid discovery, there's secret places where he keeps the tools of his trade. To me it became like a three dimensional maze. It's very much kind of a complexity, kind of like an arcology more than a two dimensional city plan.”

"The only film that I've done that I would want to go back into and do something again in the same period, is probably ‘Last of the Mohicans.’ "

And for viewers, the pulsating sound of that world comes from Tangerine Dream’s expressive score. It’s so much a part of the texture of “Thief,” it’s hard to imagine the film without it, but as Mann revealed, he initially had other ideas about the soundtrack before explaining why he settled on the progressive rockers.

“My normal instinctive choice for music would have been Chicago Blues. That's really the music that as a teenager, I first fell I love with. So my first instinct was Chicago Blues, however I felt that what the film was saying, thematically, and the facility with which the film might be able to have resonance with audience,” he said. “I felt that to be so regionally specific in the music choice would make Frank's experience specific only to Frank...So I wanted the kind of transparency, if you like, the formality of electronic music, and hence Tangerine Dream.”

This attention to context, character, themes and relatability has become a standard in Mann’s films, whether tracking the efforts of a whistleblower in “The Insider,” the manhunt to find John Dillinger in “Public Enemies,” or the trappings of sports, fame and controversy in “Ali.” And while some may subscribe specific motifs or aesthetics to the collective works of the filmmaker, personally, the director says he only looks forward to whatever is coming next.

“I'm not conscious of, ‘This is my style, this is not my style.’ If there's anything I'm aware of, it's that whatever I did last, is not what I want to do next,” Mann shared. “The only film that I've done that I would want to go back into and do something again in the same period, is probably ‘Last of the Mohicans.’ I really love period and the conflicts in the middle of the 18th century, Seven Year’s War. So, whatever it is that outside observers say, I'm not conscious of signature and it would be a bad exercise in vanity if one was.”

And with the director now in post-production on his next, untitled film starring Chris Hemsworth, he’s putting together a new world for audiences, this time, one that exists in the digital realm.

“With great facility the people in the film move between Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Los Angeles and Chicago. And the film’s story takes you from those places to inside a processor, inside the electron universe, amongst a population of transistors. You have two billion transistors in your cell phone. Bits with either an absence or surplus of electrons, then become ones or zeroes, every two billionth of a second and affect the macro, our lives. That's the world this film takes place in,” the director explained.

And as always, we’ll be waiting with eager expectations of our own, to see what Mann has conjured up next.

“Thief” is now available via The Criterion Collection. Michael Mann’s untitled next film opens on January 16, 2015.

This article is related to: Interviews, Interviews, Michael Mann, Thief


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